“WiiChurch – Entrusted”
[WHAT FOLLOWS IS THE FULL PRINTED TEXT OF TODAY’S SERMON. TO LISTEN TO AN AUDIO RECORDING, CLICK THE LITTLE BLACK ARROW ABOVE THE WORD “WHAT.”]
One of the things that churches always seem to valiantly hope for is that the people who have long-ago left will one day return.
I admire this hope – I think it comes from a sincere desire and a remembrance of how wonderful church once was. But here’s the thing – it almost never happens.
A few years ago, I was sent on an errand. A person who used to attend no longer attends. “Would you call on her,” a sincere church member asked me, “She’s going through a rough patch.”
I was happy to. I called, said I was the new minister from the church, I wondered if I might stop by. We had a nice visit. I listened intently to her current predicaments. I offered prayer.
On the way out the door, she broached the subject. “I guess you’re wondering why you haven’t seen me in church. I guess I just got out of the habit. I still have my faith, I try to be a good person, and I just don’t think you need to go to church to be a Christian.”
I paused. I didn’t quite know how to respond to that. I scrolled, in my mind, through pertinent scripture passages. “Let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving,” says Psalm 95. “Iron sharpens Iron, and one person sharpens another,” says the Proverb. But I couldn’t come up with a perfect scripture that I thought would win the argument.
“Well, we’d love to see you again some time,” I concluded. I left. She never came back.
But that conversation has lingered with me. Why should you go to church? It used to be that it was a social expectation in our culture. Everyone went to a church, at least a couple times a year. For some, church attendance meant selling more cars, or getting more business. I don’t think that’s really true anymore. For others, church gave you a place to stay connected with your neighbours and to get involved in something meaningful. But now there’s Facebook.
But, what does it mean to be authentic Christian community today? Because those older reasons no longer seem to apply.
Why is church important? Why is it indispensable to our faith? And, what will make it irresistible to the next generation?
Well, that’s what we’re going to unpack over the next four weeks. Because I sense that our kind of church is on the verge of significant change. Mostly out of necessity – because people are checking out at an alarming rate. But even lively churches, in this day in age, need to re-evaluate how we’re doing it.
Because, in every time and place the church has changed, adapted, reconfigured to meet the needs of a new generation. In the 1st-century, churches met in homes. They shared a meal, sang some songs, shared their resources widely.
In the 3rd and 4th-century, after Roman Emperor Constantine converted and legalized Christian worship, church became formal, ornate and hierarchical.
In the 14th-century the Reformation sparked a whole new way of being church. After the Second World War, men and women returned home looking to start families and careers, and the church offered just the right kind of glue to hold the new social fabric together.
But today is a different day. So, what is church all about today?
You probably know that my wife Andrea has a service dog named Ruby. She’s a lovely dog, who provides mobility and emotional support to Andrea and keeps her going when otherwise she would have reached her own limits. I consider it a miracle how she came to be with us.
Ruby was first trained to be the service dog for a little girl. She was diagnosed with Juvenile Diabetes, and constant monitoring of her blood sugar would be essential. Apparently, service dogs can be trained to detect, using scent, blood sugar levels that are too high or too low.
But eventually, a new device came out that made Ruby’s sniffing skills obsolete. Now, Ruby the service dog would become Ruby the pet.
But as time went on, and the little girl boarded the school bus each day without Ruby, Ruby was out of sorts. From birth, she had been meticulously trained to be in service to her human, but not anymore. Ruby became depressed.
Imagine how hard it must have been for her family to make the decision to part with Ruby. Imagine how much they must have loved her, to recognize that she was a working dog, and if she was going to live a good life, she would need to continue to serve her purpose. So, she came to live with us, she was trained for Andrea’s particular needs, and today Ruby is a very happy dog!
You know, in the Bible the word we translate as “church,” actually isn’t the word “church.” The original Greek word is ekklesia, but we don’t have a good English equivalent for that word, so when it came time to translate the Bible into English, the translators chose the word “church.” But there’s a problem with this interpretive choice. Church refers to the building, but that’s not what ekklesia means.
Ekklesia is a word that simply means “a gathering of people, called out for a specific purpose.” The town council is an ekklessia (A gathering of people called out for the purpose of governing the town). But when Jesus said to Peter, “Upon this rock I build my ekklessia,” (Mat 16:18) he never meant for it to refer to a specific building, only a specific gathering, with a specific purpose.
Where am I going with this? Well, if Jesus founded an ekklesia, (a group of people called out for a specific purpose) then what is the purpose?
Because, maybe, like Andrea’s service dog, Ruby, the problem with so much of the church today, is that it’s depressed. Because it’s not living into its purpose.
And so, today, we have begun a new series called “WiiChurch” with one of Paul’s pastoral epistles. Timothy is a leader of one of the churches (or ekklesias) that Paul had founded. Paul is writing this pastor to encourage him to keep on keeping on.
“Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you – guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us,” Paul exhorts. You see, our job, our purpose, first and foremost in the church is to be keepers and sharers of some news; some good news.
But that’s no small task in a world that is suspicious of any ideology other than its own. And it’s easy to turn our outrageous Christian news into an innocuous affirmation of the dominant culture. So many churches of our type, these days, have replaced “Christ and him crucified,” with a kind of secular humanism wrapped in religious language. But then the church, I think, becomes depressed.
Because secular humanism isn’t good news. It says, “If we just all tried a little harder, discovered our true self, voted just the right way, and did life better, the world would be a better place.” So, go be better!
But after millennia of trying, despite our best efforts, our best scientific advancements, our ingenious plans, the problem of the human heart remains. Although cultures, best practices and viewpoints change, the problem of sin does not.
So, thankfully, secular humanism is not the gospel. The gospel of Jesus Christ says that the world is broken (the evidence is everywhere), and this brokenness is so pervasive that we can’t fix it ourselves. But God, through Jesus Christ, has and will fully repair us and all of creation together. The gospel assures us that Jesus is our saviour. And when we trust in Jesus in all things, we can live in this new Kingdom (new reality) even now.
Paul says earlier in his letter to Timothy, “Rather, join me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God. He has saved us and called us to a holy life – not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace.”
And so, it is essential that we do as Paul exhorts, “Guarding the good deposit (the gospel) that has been entrusted to us.” Because the moment you step foot outside those doors, you are bombarded by an ideology that is distinctly different.
By the time you’ve sat down at Spuds for a little lunch today, you have been exposed to thousands of subtle messages that the world doesn’t work the way God says it does.
Messages like, “You get what you deserve” or “You’ve got to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.” You will be evaluated by your ability to “create your own identity,” and assessed by “the value of your accomplishments”. And, living in a fast food world, trying to be “do-it-yourself” people will wear away at any sense of the Gospel truth – which means living as God’s people becomes next to impossible.
So, that’s why we need this little weekly gathering; imperfect as it is. Each week we come together to do something profoundly countercultural. We sing songs of love and praise – not to ourselves – but to the creator of the universe.
We read an old old story, and then dare to suggest that the living God might be speaking through His living Word even today.
We look after one another, hear one another’s stories, carry one another’s burdens, and act like the Kingdom of God is bursting out all over the place – even as we live in a world where homeless shelters are a daily necessity and the whale of sirens remind us of the profound brokenness still in our midst. We live like people who know that an alternative reality is not only possible, but by the power of God, it’s certain!
But here’s the thing: You can’t get the good news of this particular gospel anywhere else! As a church, minding that story, is our primary purpose. Sure, we do many other things – and in the coming weeks we will delve into some of those, but first and foremost – we come here week after week, to get our story straight – to open ourselves to the reality of the Good News of God.
At Christmastime I came across a story Will Willimon, retired United Methodist pastor, told about a shared service with another church. In 1972, in Clinton, South Carolina, “We were preparing for a joint Christmas Eve communion service over at All Saints Anglican Church, to be led by Allen Warren, the town’s eccentric Anglican Priest.
Then came the news. The peace talks had stalled. Nixon has ordered massive bombing in North Vietnam. “Anger and resentment surged within me. What right had Nixon to do this on our high holy day? A sick, twisted, ironic way to note the birth of the Prince of Peace – not with the songs of angels unto shepherds but with screaming bombs over bamboo villages.
I phoned Allan. Had he heard? “Yes.” What should be our response? Afterall, two of the town’s most influential angry young pastors ought to say something! Would he mention the bombing in his sermon tonight? “We can’t let Nixon get away with it,” I said. “We ought to blast him for it.”
Allen agreed. “A situation like this calls for a firm response – something radical, arrogant, even defiant.” I braced myself for the suggestion of a major antiwar protest.
“There is only one thing to be done,” Allan declared. “We must pull out all the stops tonight and praise God as never before.”
“What?” Willimon asked, astounded.
“Can you imagine anybody up at the Pentagon singing a Benedictus?” was Allan’s only reply.
Sometimes the eccentricity of Anglicans is too much! And so, not understanding, I trudged through the crisp December night to the little church where the organist was already struggling valiantly with a prelude, and a congregation of thirty or so waited in silence for the eleventh hour.
When the hour arrived, in burst Allan, accompanied by two disheveled adolescent acolytes. He made a couple of flourished bows to the altar, shifted his chasuble, and then, leaning over the chancel rail, with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, whispered to the congregation, as if letting us in on some secret that only he knew, “Tonight, the Lord God of Israel has come to set his people free.”
I couldn’t tell you exactly what took place during the rest of the service. Revelation had caught me off guard, and I was thrown into a kind of “minor ecstasy,” as the Quakers say.
But what I do remember is Zechariah’s Benedictus sung lustily, offkey, and yes, “arrogantly and defiantly,” by Allan, with the rest of us faint hearts joining in as best we could:
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel;
for he hath visited and redeemed his people
and hath raised up a mighty salvation for us . . .
Willimon later reflected, “My “response” to the bombing horror was little better than the horror itself—my resentment, my self-righteousness, merely echoed back in the face of a violent world. The Pentagon generals and I did share something after all: brothers in darkness we were.”
I needed the church and her gospel story to let me in on the secret of the ages. To show me a possibility of confidence in the face of all evidence to the contrary, to lead us forth from the little church into the midnight air, bellowing forth “Joy to the World” at the top of our voices to anybody who had ears to hear.
The world cannot understand this hope of which we speak in this place. If we’re honest, at times, we are so clouded by our cultural assumptions that we do not understand this hope either. But that is why we must gather here – not because it will make us more respectable in culture, as it perhaps once did, but because Christ has called us to be his “ekklessia” – his people called with a purpose – to bear witness to his good news.
The truth is, the world and everything in it is broken. No one and no thing is achieving its full potential – but one day – one great and glorious God filled day…
Now, that’s Good News! That’s news you can build your life upon. You heard it here first. Now, go live as if it is true…
Thanks be to God, Amen.